The pluses and pitfalls of parental leave for men

For a productive and inclusive workplace, we need to rethink parental leave being focused on female workers.

In August, my wife and I welcomed our second daughter into the world. She is a delight and we are all very excited, particularly our two-year-old daughter who has taken to her role as big sister exceedingly well. Having been through it all before, we both thought that we knew what to expect. We knew there would be long nights and difficult days, particularly with a toddler thrown into the mix. While parenthood is immensely rewarding, integrating it into the rest of your life, including your work, can be difficult.

When my daughter was only six days old, I interrupted my paternity leave to attend a lunch our firm was hosting. I had earlier volunteered to give a presentation on our financial modelling capabilities and my very understanding wife agreed that she could do without me for a few hours.

After a productive conversation, our guests left and we stood around the boardroom debriefing on how we all thought it had gone.

I don’t remember closing my eyes, but the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes to find one of the partners quietly laughing at me. I had nodded off for a few seconds while everyone else spoke around me. Fortunately, he was the only person to notice. That was the moment when I truly knew I had crossed over into the “new parent” level of tiredness again.

Set expectations early and stick with them

I have been fortunate to work for a firm that truly believes in having a balance between work and home. I was able to take close to a month off for paternity leave, no questions asked. I can leave on the dot of 5pm and there are no sidewise glances or hints, subtle or overt, that I should be working later. If I do have any outstanding work I attend to it after the girls are in bed.

Unfortunately, the mentality that you are only working hard and committed to your job if you remain at the office after hours is still prevalent.

Supporting working parents shouldn’t stop after they come back from parental leave. Unfortunately, there is still a way to go in integrating this thinking into the workplace. Some firms will advertise that they offer flexible working arrangements, but the reality will be that they are extremely difficult to arrange, or really just anticipated for use by their female staff members. This type of window dressing is both dishonest and harmful to workplace morale. Fortunately, this is diminishing as progressive firms, including my own, recognise the benefit of improving workplace efficacy by not being so rigid on strict office hours.

The ability to take leave when necessary is also an important consideration. My wife is a solicitor and there have been a number of occasions where we have woken up to a sick child and have had to decide who had more pressing deadlines and who could afford to take a day or two of carer’s leave. For two professionals, this is not an easy decision, particularly if it involves multiple days off, balancing the needs of our family to the promises made to clients and colleagues.

However, the onus of implementing reasonable expectations does not rest solely with employers, but with working parents as well.

As babies rarely arrive on their due date, it does make it difficult to accurately plan your workload as at any moment you might get “the call” and leave unfinished work for your colleagues to attend to. Upon reflection, I did not properly disconnect myself and effectively delegate work to my team in the initial few days after my daughter was born. This resulted in me answering emails from clients and other consultants in the hospital while my newborn daughter slept. I really only had myself to blame for this as my colleagues did not expect me to make myself available.

Technology – the double-edged sword

It is the cliché of the moment – technology is changing the way in which we work. It opens new possibilities while increasing the efficiency of tasks we already have to do. As a financial modeller, I completely agree with this world view. I work daily with clients of all sizes to build financial forecasts and cash flow projections, either from scratch or in a more efficient and interconnected way. It gives me great pleasure to help a business determine their future direction in a way they can clearly articulate to other stakeholders like banks and shareholders. The ability of technology to deliver this is only improving every day.

Despite this, I would still argue that technology can have undesirable impacts if it is allowed to.

It is an accepted part of society that the majority of us are connected around the clock. Most Australian professionals will have at least one smartphone, with email and social media pouring in. We have all had that email or phone call after 5pm that requires immediate attention and because we can remotely access our work computers, there is no physical reason we can’t respond. While this is not a problem exclusively faced by working parents, I have felt it more acutely since becoming a parent. Ultimately, this comes back to setting the right expectations with colleagues, bosses and clients.

Working parents, not just mothers

I’ve used the term ‘working parents’ in this piece to make it clear that I don’t just mean working mothers. The world is changing, albeit too slowly, from mothers being the assumed primary carer and the father being the primary breadwinner. The workplace needs to change to reflect this too through the proper implementation of policies to support the decisions working parents make.

Among my friends who have had children, I have seen arrangements where the father took more time off compared to the mother, and another where the father worked during school hours and again after bedtime so that he could do the school run. In our case, we decided that my wife would take a year of maternity leave before returning to part-time work after the birth of both our daughters. In all these cases, an arrangement was made based on what suited the family best, having regard to their specific circumstances. Fortunately, our employers supported this flexibility.

Raising children often takes more than just the parents, however. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Working grandparents and other carers also face similar pressures in the workplace. Any carer of a child, regardless of the relationship to the child, should be able to access the same flexibility arrangements working parents receive to help support the raising of the child.

We are very fortunate our daughters’ grandparents are active in their lives. Both grandmothers look after our eldest daughter once a week, which is a special time for all involved. This is only possible because one is retired and the other works for an employer who offers flexible shifts. If they didn’t have this flexibility, they would not be able to help out and see their granddaughters as much as they do. Thanks to their weekly assistance, both my wife and I are able to build our careers and know the girls are building lasting relationships with their grandparents.

Real action, not window-dressing

It is great to see the changes already happening in the workplace. Compared to previous generations, working parents have access to more options for succeeding in their careers while maintaining their family life. I still think there is a way to go, however, but this will continue to be a challenge for employers and employees. Ultimately, I believe firms that adopt more inclusive policies will see the benefits of more engagement and efficient working parents.

Thomas Paul, associate director, Pilot Partners Chartered Accountants

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